NBC Sports' Kathryn Tappen on the power of youth sports
By Greg Bach
The youth sports memories of NBC sportscaster Kathryn Tappen are draped in fun.
And they’re punctuated with life lessons in hard work, commitment – and even dressing for success – that not only fueled a successful collegiate running career at Rutgers but helped carve out an award-winning broadcasting career, too.
Her journey began in Morristown, N.J., where you name it and she played it as a youngster.
There was softball in the spring, basketball in the winter, and everything else in between.
“It was my entire life,” she says. “You could never keep me inside. It was just any chance I could get my hand on a tennis racket or a golf club or a basketball. I was always doing something, whether it was with kids in the neighborhood or just by myself with a basketball hoop in our driveway.”
Tappen’s dad coached her youth softball team, and her girlfriend’s dad was the assistant coach. So those Saturday morning games and mid-week practices are forever etched in her mind.
They were special.
“You’d hop in the car and he’d have a whole trunk load of bats and balls and bases – and there would be dirt from the field – and we’d go over on a Tuesday night when he got home from work and have softball practice,” she recalls. “It was great. I look back on it now and those are some of my fondest memories of sports.”
They worked on hitting and fielding.
Throwing and catching.
And there were even some lessons learned on dressing the right way, too.
“My dad was always present so just being able to learn from him was special,” Tappen says. “He was an athlete too growing up so he loved teaching, even how to put on my pants the right way. He’d tuck the stir-ups in and then I’d pull the pants up and have these super high stir-ups up to my knees and he would say ‘that’s the way you have to play ball. You have to be dressed properly.’ I was probably the most proper kid on the field but he was right – that sets the tone for your whole attitude on the field and people take notice.”
STEPPING OFF THE SOFTBALL FIELD – AND ONTO THE TRACK
She enjoyed softball midway through her high school years, before swapping it for track. Though it wasn’t a sport she had her eye on growing up.
Or even liked right away.
Heading into her freshman year of high school she was exploring a fall sport to get involved with that would help her get in great shape for basketball season.
So, she found herself on the cross-country team.
“There was nothing that I liked about running,” she recalls of her initiation into the sport. “We would train on these monster hills and it was not fun. But it got me into really good shape and I think as I got better at running that’s when I started to love it more.”
She got good fast, and by her junior year she ditched the softball diamond to pursue track.
Turns out that was a pretty good decision. “Ultimately it ended up being my best sport, which sent me to college,” she says.
She starred at Rutgers. She ran cross country in the fall, indoor track in the winter and outdoor track in the spring. She set the school record in the 3,000-meter steeplechase and was an academic all-American.
All those experiences competing on the track, both in high school and college, forged incredible mental strength and confidence.
And those are pretty good attributes to have for navigating life.
“What I loved about it is that I’m a big team sport person but this taught me how to be individually mentally strong,” she says. “When you’re out there on a 5K cross country course in high school and then 6K in college, you’re in the woods sometimes for stretches all by yourself so you can’t hear people cheering for you and you can’t hear your parents at the finish line rooting for you. It’s just you and your own head and trying to get yourself through some really tough stretches in the middle of a race, or going up a hill, or trying to speed up at certain points or slow down and pace yourself, so I loved the mental challenge.”
Tappen has covered Super Bowls and Stanley Cup Finals. Notre Dame football games on Saturday afternoons. And she was in Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games as well as Rio last summer for the Summer Olympics.
Going in front of the camera with millions watching certainly takes a healthy dose of confidence.
And she recognizes how important all those sports experiences throughout her life have been in contributing to her broadcasting success.
“I definitely think sports had a huge influence on building my confidence, and my parents certainly did as well,” she says. “They instilled a work ethic in us and it was ‘we’re not going to send you to AAU basketball’ or ‘we’re not going to pay for piano lessons if you don’t want to practice.’ So when you get that work ethic and you start to learn what it takes to be successful in sports you want to be successful because that builds your confidence.”
As the Stanley Cup Finals begin in a few days Tappen will be heavily involved in the coverage, just as she has been all season long hosting NHL Live and NHL Overtime.
When the camera lights go on and the players hit the ice she’ll be prepared, confident and deliver with the pressure on. After all, she’s done it her entire life, thanks to the lessons that were learned beginning on those softball fields in her hometown.
So her message on the power of sports should be embraced, because she has lived it every day.
“I just think the teamwork aspect of sports is so important if kids can get out and learn that you’re going to fail sometimes and you’re going to succeed sometimes and you’re also going to come somewhere in the middle a lot of the time,” she says. “And as long as you have people around you, like your teammates to pick you up when you feel down or to support you when you’re riding high, you just lean on that so heavily and it instills this inner confidence.”
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